2015 in Review: The Best Films of the Year

Youth, Carol, Sicario, and Phoenix are 2015's best films.
2015, like many of its best films, ends a year that had a habit of sneaking up on you. Most of its strongest players aren’t the biggest and loudest films that announced themselves with thunder, but rather the smaller films that emphasize the most basic elements of cinema—great characters, story, cinematography—to offer something that feels both old and new. The year admittedly marks one of the better years for studio films outside of the mindless franchise crap with films like The Martin proving to be a highlight in big screen entertainment. Mad Max: Fury Road offers a rarity in which both a franchise film and a two-hour action sequence can make for wild escapism, too, which makes it one of the year’s most legitimate surprises and proves that there’s still merit to full-throttle entertainment if it escape the formula of ‘rinse and repeat.’ Even then, Mad Max follows the old/new dynamic of 2015 by reviving an old franchise and giving a contemporary female lead with Furiosa. Finally, Ricki and the Flash, Steve Jobs, and Bridge of Spies prove that the major studios can still deliver quality dramas. Overall, 2015 has a lot to admire.

It’s really a year for the little guys, however. The best films of 2015 are those by filmmakers who seem tired with the status quo and want to shake things up. The year’s best films are ones that know how hard it is right now for independent films. Originality of vision is key, just like it is to keep Mad Max atop the blockbuster pile—it always has been key, though, hasn’t it?

This list concludes a fairly rocky year for coverage at Cinemablographer. I’ll admit that I haven’t been on my game as much as I’ve wanted to be, but my favourite film of the year advises the value in looking forward, rather than dwelling on what’s past. Let’s look to 2016 by highlighting the films that set the bar for the year to come.

The Top Ten Films of 2015:

(Dir. Liz Garbus, USA)

Any list of the best films of 2015 needs to acknowledge how great a year it’s been for music documentaries. Liz Garbus’s What Happened, Miss Simone? is easily the best of the bunch. What Happened, Miss Simone?, like 2015 rock docs Amy, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Janis, and others, goes beyond the biopic as Liz Garbus creates a rich portrait of soulful bipolar singer Nina Simone. The film mines a wealth of archival material and injects Simone’s own voice into the story as her diary entries and notes create a complex woman behind the music. The film stands best among the music docs of 2015 for how Garbus uses Simone’s story to create a portrait of the Civil Rights movement and plays the footage off Simone to show how one woman influences a movement and how a movement shapes the music of an icon. The film doesn’t shy away from asking if Simone ultimately comprised her star status by developing a radical voice, but Garbus smartly positions the danger in Simone’s outspokenness as a black woman within the racial tensions of the time. The film might be the best case for diverse stories this year.

What Happened, Miss Simone? is now available on Netflix.

eOne Films

9. The Hateful Eight

(Dir. Quentin Tarantino, USA)

The eight film by Quentin Tarantino is one of his talkiest, craziest, wildest, and bloodiest rides. The Hateful Eight marks one of Tarantino’s most literate screenplays and one of his sharpest turns in the director’s chair as he draws upon tropes of the western and elements of the chamber drama to make a contained and claustrophobic mystery that twists and turns the audience’s allegiances as characters trade crackerjack dialogue in 70mm scope. The cast of nefarious characters is delicious, especially as played by the full-blooded ensemble of Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kurt Russell, et al, but Tarantino’s use of space and framing tastes even better as the epic scope of the film uses containment to its full advantage. Tarantino and DP Robert Richardson waste not a millimetre of the film’s much-ballyhooed widescreen as the busy frames of The Hateful Eight contain all the info that the characters aren’t saying in their über-literate conversations. Add a great Ennio Morricone score, and The Hateful Eight delivers a new spin on the western that deserves to endure with the film that inspired it. It also demands to be seen in its pimped-out roadshow experience for the full effect.

The Hateful Eight is now in theatres from eOne Films.

Time Lapse Pictures.

8. In Her Place

(Dir. Albert Shin, Canada/South Korea)

“Where there is hope in one half of In Her Place,” I wrote while reviewing the film earlier this year, “there is hell in the other.” This emotionally-searing drama refuses to give the audience an easy ally within its complexly plotted three-headed hydra. An anonymous mother, daughter, and mother-to-be, played with chameleon-like dexterity by Hae-yeon Ki, Da-kyung Yoon, and Ji-hye Ahn, are all part of the same beast as they perform the ritual transaction of an adoption, but the film shapes and reframes sympathy by giving the audience multiple perspectives of the same story. The film reveals itself like a weighing of allegiances that ultimately puts the viewer in a game of Sophie’s Choice, and it’s impossible to choose any of these three women as the one most worthy of one’s sympathy. In Her Place is the only film of 2015 to make the lists for Best Canadian Films, Best Performances, and Best Films. Albert Shin’s powerful drama demands comparison to Denis Villeneuve’s Canadian film game-changer Incendies with how explosively it engages the audience with a film that feels both minutely specific and urgently universal, and more importantly, culturally and cinematically significant.

In Her Place is available on iTunes.

Mongrel Media

7. The Forbidden Room

(Dir. Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson, Canada)

Nervous seamen searching for release? A volcano about to explode? Vampiric bananas? Guy Maddin must be having a giggle over his latest cracked-out kinofest The Forbidden Room, for not even a bizarre supporting turn by Udo Kier is among the weirdest things about The Forbidden Room. Capping off a banner year with co-director Evan Johnson (the two also have the year’s best short film, Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton, to their names) to take the title of the Best Canadian Film of 2015, Maddin offers his most playfully immersive odyssey yet that collides the world of classic cinema with the world of the subconscious. The Forbidden Room is surreal and elusive with its dreamy aesthetics that filter through layers of classic cinema, and the film washes over the viewer like lava with its infuriatingly—and rewardingly—dense and demanding voyage through layers of the dream world. The film mixes highbrow cinephilia and lowbrow humour with a healthy dose of life-saving pancakes, and the result is quite possibly the most ridiculous, delightful, challenging, and rewarding film that Maddin has ever made.

The Forbidden Room screens as part of TIFF’s Canada’s Top Ten.

Fox Searchlight Pictures

6. Far from the Madding Crowd

(Dir. Thomas Vinterberg, UK/USA)

Swoon for Far From the Madding Crowd. Like Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, Thomas Vinterberg’s marvellous Far from the Maddin Crowd harkens back to a day of classical cinema and contributes to the league of films that inspire it. This authentic adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s canonical novel offers a throwback to grand moviemaking. Madding offers an emotionally intimate and cinematically epic scale as Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan in one of the year’s best performances) comes into her own as an independent farmer while juggling the romantic prospects of three men, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, Tom Sturridge, and Michael Sheen. From the soul-stirring score by Craig Armstrong to the warm, golden cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen and the ravishing costumes by Janet Patterson, every stitch of Far from the Madding Crowd offers the best meeting ground for film and literature that an adaptation junkie could desire. This beautiful and thrillingly cinematic romance deserves to stand as the definitive film version of Far from the Madding Crowd.

Far from the Madding Crowd is available on home video from Fox Searchlight Pictures.

(Dir. Marah Strauch, USA/Norway/UK)

Sunshine Superman is a favourite of mine that occupies a spot atop virtually every list since its premiere at TIFF 2014. Marah Strauch’s film easily soars as the best documentary of the year. Sunshine Superman sails with its adrenaline-pumping archival footage from BASE jumper Carl Boenish, whose 16mm cameras capture falls from cinematic summits that ho-hum Go-pros simply can’t achieve with the same sense of awe these days. Beyond the visual power of the film, however, Sunshine Superman asks the deeper questions about the lows that accompany the highs of life-affirming extreme sports. Strauch’s objective camera gives Boenish and his extreme sport the full 360° portrait that someone with this much lust for life deserves and, in turn, her ability to assess his pursuits critically takes Sunshine Superman to powerfully philosophical heights. Moreover, the all-seeing eye of Strauch’s camera feels like the eye of God (or any higher power in which one believes, be it Buddha or Meryl Streep) watches over the story as Sunshine Superman reaches its final act atop the peaks of Norway. Sunshine Superman finds the boundaries between humans and the higher powers in the universe, and it’s an awesome, euphoric experience.

Sunshine Superman is now available on home video from VSC.

Films We Like

4. Phoenix

(Dir. Christian Petzold, Germany)

The spirits of Alfred Hitchcock and Marlene Dietrich come alive in the mesmerizing Phoenix. This post WWII thriller stars Nina Hoss (runner-up in the list of the year’s best lead performances) as a Holocaust survivor named Nelly who must adapt to the ruins of Berlin like she did in the camps. As Nelly confronts the betrayal that sent her to the camps, Phoenix plays the ignorance of Nelly’s husband (Ronald Zehrfeld, who is also very, very good) akin to willful blindness as he fails to see what stands before his eyes. As husband and wife reconnect with Johnny’s complete ignorance to Nelly, the divide between the couple evokes the ignorance of Germans to the realities of Nazi Germany. The film is a master class in setting and atmosphere as director/co-writer Christian Petzold harnesses the war torn city as a kind of film noir purgatory. As Nelly trots through the shadows with a widow’s veil and a naïve resolution to reclaim her pre-war self, Phoenix builds a character who deserves to endure as one of film’s greats. One simply cannot overstate how good Hoss is here in the lead: she’s an enigmatic powerhouse who leaves the viewer shaken after Phoenix’s showstopper of a finale.

Phoenix is now available on home video from Films We Like.

eOne Films.

3. Sicario

(Dir. Denis Villeneuve, USA)

Québécois director Denis Villeneuve delivers a bullet straight to the chest with the intense drama Sicario. The war on drugs looks grim through Villeneuve’s vision as FBI agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt who owns the role as one of 2015’s most badass females) straddles the borderland networks that funnel drugs between Mexico and America. The war on drugs might look its bleakest in Sicario, but the futile war rarely looks as poetically tragic as it does here. Credit to Villeneuve’s incisive direction and to sharpshooter Roger Deakins’ masterful cinematography makes Sicario a rarity among action dramas, for the film brings all the exhilaration and heart-pounding intensity of an action movie, but it never glorifies the violence. Instead, each trip to battle is emotionally and physically draining as Sicario leaves one transfixed, breathless, and helpless while watching the violence play out on screen. The score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, similarly, sounds like a pulse racing against the intensity of the onscreen action. One struggles to breathe during the finale tour into cartel land hell in which Sicario sees the war on drugs through night vision and thermal imaging because it feels so unsettlingly and unbearably real.

Sicario comes to home video on January 5 from eOne Films.

eOne Films.

2. Carol

(Dir. Todd Haynes, USA)

Carol is the year’s best love story. As meek little shopgirl Therese (Rooney Mara) catches eyes with glamourous shopper Carol (Cate Blanchett) across the floor, Carol is love at first sight. It’s impossible not to fall head over heels for Todd Haynes’s love story in this defining moment. The film, delicately adapted by Phyllis Nagy from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, unfolds like a courtship of its own as Carol slowly and sweetly envelops the audience in a romance that gradually speaks its name. While the film downplays the Thelma and Louise-like road trip from the novel, the adaptation shrewdly devotes its attention to the lovers’ pursuit of a relationship lived out in the open, rather than one driven into hiding. The performances by Mara and Blanchett are masterful turns of restrained emotion and buried desire as the leads create two women who gradually escape the containment of 1950s conservatism and let love come full circle. Every gesture and every glance in Carol comes loaded with emotion and meaning, while the cinematography by Edward Lachman puts a peculiar spin on melodrama by watching the blossoming romance through windows, door frames, and mirrors to find a love story that must live on the margins but has as much weight, emotion, and honesty as any other.

Carol is now in theatres from eOne Films.

And the best film of 2015 is...

Fox Searchlight Pictures

1. Youth

(Dir. Paolo Sorrentino, Italy/France/UK/Switzerland)

Paolo Sorrentino follows his Oscar-winner The Great Beauty with another cinematically rich canvas of beauty and emptiness against the backdrop of the European high life. Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel give two of their best performances as Fred and Mick, two old friends relaxing at a Swiss spa where they confront their mortality and personal legacies. Built on a series of repetitions and exquisitely-shot set pieces by Luca Bigazzi, Youth conveys that aging is simply all in the mind as one can either look forward or look back, and either be burdened by the past or be revitalized by the opportunities of the future. A doozy of a supporting turn by Jane Fonda (the year’s best supporting performance) shakes up the film in its most compelling monologue among many that the ensemble delivers throughout the days at the spa. (Shout outs also go to Rachel Weisz and Paul Dano for giving some of their best work in Youth.) Everything in Youth is perfectly attune to the simple pleasures of life that keep one young at heart as Fred observes the minute elements of art around him. A composer, Fred hears music everywhere he goes and, in the year’s most wonderfully cinematic moment, he conducts a symphony using the available sounds of the Alpine landscape to draw cowbells and moos into a heart-swelling symphony. The music by David Lang elevates the film to the level of masterpiece as Youth carefully intertwines Fred’s landmark composition into the workings of the narrative and the film builds to a grand finale as Fred unburdens himself from the past and embraces what remains his future. It’s impossible to watch the performance of “Simple Song #3” and not feel chills as Youth draws to a powerful close.

Youth is now in theatres from Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Honourable mentions: Al Purdy Was Here, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Cartel Land, The Danish Girl, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, Ricki and the Flash, Son of Saul, The Sound of Trees, Spotlight, Steve Jobs, While We’re Young.

Best 2015 festival films not yet released in Canada: Dégradé, Demolition, Liza, the Fox Fairy, The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, Sunset Song, Thru You Princess, Where to Invade Next, The Witch, A Woman Like Me.

What are your favourite films of 2015?

Previously in ‘Year in Review’:

Thanks to everyone for supporting Cinemablographer in 2015!
See you in the New Year!